For all of the ominous brooding in his dramatic music, London’s Matt Johnson, aka the The, has, over the years, matured into a subtle and versatile artist. Working in styles ranging from light dance-influenced pop to mutant country, he’s outgrown the fashionable despair embraced as an ultimate goal by lesser lights, creating moving testimonials to love and hope while continuing to gaze, clear-eyed, into the abyss. Johnson’s seemingly dour vocals are often laced with sardonic humor and outbursts of passion, as if he were compelled to unleash pent-up emotions out of necessity rather than as part of an act.
Prior to his first album (Burning Blue Soul was released in 1981 as a Matt Johnson solo project; it was credited to the The upon its reissue more than a decade later), Johnson played on an EP by the Gadgets (a hapless Bowie-oriented art-rock band in which he played a subordinate guitar role, and later none at all: the group continued on through the ’80s, long after he had bowed out), released a single as the The and contributed a the The track to the electro-pop scene-starting Some Bizzare Album compilation. Recorded with virtually no outside assistance, Burning Blue Soul offers little hint of what was to come. Clearly the work of someone still trying out his ideas, this sparse opus mixes simple pop and rudimentary tape-manipulated weirdness. For fans only.
Though tracks from a projected follow-up, The Pornography of Despair, surfaced as B-sides and bonus cuts (two on a 12-inch with “Perfect,” a song done for, but originally omitted from, Soul Mining; five on cassette; others were added to initial British pressings of Soul Mining), the album never received a full-blown release. Still, Johnson includes it in the discography that invariably accompanies his releases, perhaps with an eye to mystique building.
Soul Mining documents his growing comprehension of art and craft. Johnson favors a fuller band sound, and some of the gently engaging pop tunes, such as “Uncertain Smile,” “Perfect” (added to the American edition of the album) and “This Is the Day,” are compelling portraits of inner confusion, although Johnson’s eerie vocal resemblance to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is a distraction. There’s also some less satisfying confrontational noise for its own sake. (A different version of “Perfect” — with David Johansen playing harmonica — was released as a single.)
Three years later, Johnson returned with the ambitious and sophisticated Infected. The eight metaphorical songs — addressing sexual, social and political issues — use a studio full of notable musicians (Neneh Cherry, Roli Mosimann, Zeke Manyika, Anne Dudley and others) for a wide range of new sounds, some far more energetic than the The’s previous work. So while “Heartland” recalls the low-key ambience of Soul Mining, the title track is pounding dance music, with big drums and broad-brush production; “Twilight of a Champion” is ’40sish jazz noir that again suggests Foetus. Overall, however, it’s surprisingly uninviting. While Johnson strains to say something important on Infected, he fails to connect on a most basic musical level. (While the world patiently awaited the The’s new album, British Epic issued a joint CD of Soul Mining and Infected.)
With former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr joining the fold for Mind Bomb, Johnson relaxes his white- knuckle grip slightly without compromising his vision, resulting in the The’s most palatable album to date. Continuing to tackle Serious Stuff in gripping tunes like “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)” and “The Violence of Truth” (where he exclaims, “God is evil! God is love!”), Johnson favors warmer yet still bracing textures that supply added zing to his uneasy sagas.
Dusk consists of nothing but high points. With Marr still in the band (contributing bluesy harmonica as well as sparkling guitar), Johnson fervently stalks truth and inner peace, naturally finding neither. The tunes are concise, often catchy explorations of our need for love and fulfillment. In “Bluer Than Midnight,” Johnson muses bleakly, “Why can’t love touch my heart like fear does?” while he struggles to affirm the undying spirit in “Love Is Stronger Than Death.” Tempering the bleak content with edgy, rough-hewn music adds warmth to what could have been merely grim “entertainment.”
Reaching from Burning Blue Soul to Dusk, Solitude offers live takes, remixes and deconstructions of familiar works as well three-fourths of the 1991 Shades of Blue EP, including the title track, a Duke Ellington tune. Interesting though hardly essential.
Hanky Panky might have sunk to self-conscious gimmickry in less perceptive hands, but Johnson makes it work beautifully. Covering eleven classics by country-music immortal Hank Williams, he finds that aching spot deep in the soul where all great art originates. The spare, no- nonsense renditions of “My Heart Would Know,” “Six More Miles,” “I Saw the Light,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” et al. capture the tension of the The’s best stuff without sacrificing the sad grace of the originals. Johnson has been progressing toward something like Williams’ eloquent directness his entire career. A tour de force tribute.